• U.S.

A Little Help from Friends

3 minute read

“The U.S. Government has scrupulously avoided taking sides in the Salvadoran election.” —State Department Spokesman John Hughes, May 4

“Insofar as theState Department is concerned, there’s absolutely no funding to Mr.Duarte or, indeed, any party. Obviously we can’t speak for theCIA.” —John Hughes, May 9

As Hughes abruptly began backpedaling last week, yet another development in Central America became the focus of suspicion and dispute in Washington. Only two days after the Salvadoran election, Republican Senator Jesse Helms claimed that he had uncovered “a covert plan” under which CIA funds were directly funneled into the campaign of Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte. Said Helms: “The State Department and the CIA bought Mr. Duarte lock, stock and barrel.” Yet the fact that the ultraconservative North Carolinian, who openly supported Duarte’s rightist adversary Roberto d’Aubuisson, took the lead on the issue may have muted the impact of the revelation.

It has, of course, been no secret that the Reagan Administration was hoping for a victory by the Christian Democrats. It has also been open knowledge in San Salvador that the Venezuelan Institute of Popular Education (IVEPO) has been used as a conduit for foreign assistance to the Christian Democrats. This became visible last February when Duarte’s ill-funded party suddenly began using glossy posters, lavish billboards and slick TV ads. D’Aubuisson’s Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) retaliated by running a newspaper ad accusing the Venezuelan government of meddling in Salvadoran affairs. On Saturday, in another full-page ad, ARENA directly charged the CIA with channeling funds to Duarte’s campaign.

Last week, however, Washington was abuzz with news that the CIA had influenced the campaign without going through foreign channels. Three members of the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed to TIME that a CIA official had told the committee two weeks ago that the agency has subsidized the Christian Democrats and two smaller parties. The funds amounted to at least $2 million. The campaign against D’Aubuisson was conducted in accordance with a presidential “finding” in March 1981 that directed the CIA to combat Marxism in Central America through a variety of means, including election financing. In reply to the charge, Duarte simply answered, “I have no information about that.”

Although few people believed Duarte’s demurral, even liberal Democrats conceded that CIA funding of the Christian Democrats was probably necessary to cancel out the money being poured into ARENA coffers by right-wing oligarchs in El Salvador and in exile in Florida. It is not unusual for governments to back their favorite candidates in other countries: West European parties in power often send funds to sister groups abroad. Nonetheless, the recent revelations unsettled quite a few members of Congress, who grumbled that the CIA had once again neglected to keep Congress fully informed of its activities.

The Administration seemed to appreciate the sensitivity of the issue. Initially, the President had been expected to use last week’s address on Central America to eulogize Duarte and to extol the triumph of democracy in El Salvador. But the White House apparently decided that any sweeping affirmation of Duarte’s victory might backfire in the light of revelations about CIA support. During his speech, the President did not once mention Duarte by name.

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